There was one of those antiques programmes on this evening – two experts going around Scotland buying items from local dealers and then selling them at auctions in the hope of making a profit, taking delight in making sums like £7. It was strangely compulsive viewing, sitting wishing the bids upward, hoping that something bought for £30 will not be knocked down for £20.
There was an odd delight in watching their triumphs, perhaps it was because the sums involved were the sort of amounts to which ordinary people might aspire.
Never a gambler, I used to attend race meetings at Downpatrick in Co Down. It was an opportunity to meet many members of the parish and was made more interesting by placing £1 bets at the Tote. I once won £18.88 when a horse called Fun and Games won a flat race, but the wins and losses were usually a matter of a couple of pounds either way. There was never a desire to place amounts any larger, never a feeling that I might be £5 down on the evening and needed to bet in the hope of clearing my losses. The fun was in trying to win and not being too disturbed by losses. A friend and I both won £1.30 for a £1 bet on one occasion, ‘a 30% profit’, he declared, smiling, ‘you would find it hard to find another investment that gave such a return so quickly’. It was never about the money, it was about the winning.
Television producers have long known that people will delight not only in winning themselves, but in watching the success of those with whom they might empathise – the small amounts involved in the antiques programme allow a sense of empathy that would not exist were the bids in thousands or tens of thousands. From the early days of television there were programmes, particularly quiz programmes, where people would compete for small prizes. Bruce Forsyth’s Saturday evening ratings-topper The Generation Game culminated with the winner watching potential prizes, mostly household goods, pass by on a conveyor belt before being given the opportunity to name, and win, all the items could remember.
There is something reassuring in people being delighted at winning small prizes and, equally, being delighted at others winning such prizes. In a world of aggressive acquisitiveness and rampant individualism, such delight shows there is still a streak in human nature that rejects the notions of success sold to us by the corporations and the advertising executives.
In their own way, the two antique experts, conservative and traditional as they might be, run counter to our culture where more is better and where small counts for nothing.